'Shonen Knife' 30th Anniversary Party - Scala, London
It’s a rainy evening on Sunday Sept’ 11th as I arrive a couple of hours early at the Scala. After introducing myself to Former Utopia’s George Gargan, who’s braving the cold with a quick smoke, I decide to find a spot close by to stop and eat. Glancing up briefly I’m rewarded with a glimpse of things to come, spotting three familiar looking ladies as they chill upstairs with their backs to the window. As opening time approaches, the audience starts to gather. There’s an awful lot of Ramones t-shirt-wearers about, including my brother, who promptly admits that despite its appropriate-ness it was probably a bad idea. I doubt that Shonen Knife, the “Osaka Ramones” themselves would mind in the least bit.
Time is pushed it seems, and as we get ’round to shuffling in Former Utopia is already set up and performing. It’s a very calm and composed set; a pattern of predominantly slow numbers, lifted by some hauntingly beautiful melodies and a folk-ish charm, which serves as a nice precursor to what becomes a gradually heavier build up.
“I don’t know what to say, I’m a little shy.” proclaims Slowgun lead singer Toni after the first couple of numbers. Indeed it shows as her timid gaze takes in the crowd; her hushed vocals offset by a sound which takes me back to my love of mid-nineties indie artists such as Belly. As the set progresses Toni seems to settle in a bit more, cracking a smile here and there, while bassist Stef seems to be all laughs in contrast to Piers’s more deeply focused attitude. Meanwhile drummer Val devilishly looks on at the crowd and press - she’s fierce on the kit alright, with humour to boot. A band I’ll most certainly be keeping an eye on in future.
We’re almost at the headlining act, with just Smallgang left to help sate the crowds hungering appetite for the Osakan punketts. Simon Kobayashi, sporting an injured hand - incurred by an earlier fall I’m told - steps up to plate, undeterred by such a potential setback. The songs are rather skittish, what with Simon and his brother Hitoshi swapping lead vocal and guitar duties every so often. It’s a solid exchange between the two personalities, with Simon clearly wielding the angrier axe; his quick fingers creating a small fury which manages to effortlessly drown out the noise from the crowd. “Enjoy Shonen Knife, they’re gonna rock”, or words close to that effect he exclaims. Yup, we’ve been nicely buttered up.
It’s the final swap of the cymbals. Naoko’s guitar and Ritsuko’s bass have magically appeared on stage, waiting to be awakened, while the Japanese Underground Djs pump a nicely selected assortment of Japanese hits through the room. Emi enters stage to do a spot of fine tuning; her smile beams upon hearing the audience’s cries of “Linda, Linda, Linda” as The Blue Hearts’ classic punk hit belts out. She soon disappears, leaving a minute or two of further wanting.
Soon the trio arrives left of stage, new scarves in hand - part of the merch no less - and sporting the kind of ridiculously cute attire you’d come to expect from them. Petite mod-style skirts, bell-bottoms and huge buttons are the order of the day, and boy do they sell the look.
Of course “Konnichiwa” is the obligatory opener, followed by “Twist Barbie”, after which Naoko pauses to address the crowd. “We are very happy to come back to London: rock city!” she says: fist in air, the Sign of the Horns extended. That’s all you need to know - they’re here to rock hard, and the horns ain’t going away any time soon. “Perfect Freedom”, taken from their latest album is frankly blistering, and at this point my camera was struggling to keep up amidst the constant light changes, coupled with Ritsuko’s demonic bass playing and perpetual head banging. By this point, however, with “A Map Master” kicking into gear, the press are booted off to give the crowd and the girls a little more breathing space.
The mixture of old and new hits continues, from the infectious “Capybara” to “I Am a Cat”, the latter of which sees Emi provide a particularly memorable moment with her sweet rendition. In the space of a year or so she’s proven to be a wonderful asset to the group; her monstrous drum peddling paired with a loveable persona has swiftly won over loyal fans. A couple of songs later and all eyes are back on her as she imparts her message for the evening: “So tonight is our final song in the UK. I’m so sad, but I want to enjoy it tonight. Thank you for coming.” The sincerity is warming - Ritsuko concluding with “Let’s have fun tonight.” With roaring cheers from a well-behaved crowd Shonen Knife keeps belting them out, and it would appear that the choice song of the evening is “Banana Chips”, causing waves of head bopping and air punching. It may just have edged “Riding on the Rocket” in the popularity stakes.
“Cobra vs. Mongoose” is a fitting closing number. Naoko and Ritsuko bang their heads in perfect unison, unleashing some mad solos as they prepare to take their bow. Except the crowd isn’t having any of it, they know exactly what’s coming with cries of “Encore!” shortly after the group’s departure. A minute or so later - and with a quick wardrobe change - the girls are back, deciding to end their UK tour in the same fashion they opened it on. The “Osaka Ramones” have returned! Ritsuko quickly takes charge of “Sheena is a Punk”, Emi commands vocals once more with “The KKK Took My Baby” and “Blitzkrieg Pop” culminates with a stage diver, who manages to scarper before security can nab him. Did I say well behaved? Ah well, all harmless fun. It was a good night to be had by all for sure, and the girls even stuck around to sign merch and have a few giggles.
That’s about it. A brilliant evening celebrating thirty years of one of Japan’s finest music exports, supported by some excellent talent, each of whom were certainly new to my ears. With all the energy and enthusiasm of a ten year-old in a toy store made of candy, Shonen Knife don’t look like they’re going away any time soon. Rest assured they’ll be back, and when they do be sure to cancel all other plans.
A Map Master
Bear Up Bison
I Am A Cat
Riding on the Rocket
Cobra vs. Mongoose
Sheena is a Punk
The KKK Took My Baby
More photos from the evening can be found here